Cooking with wild mushrooms, or funghi, is an experience you must have – whether you add them to sauces and stews or enjoy them as toppings on salads and foccacia. Our Italian writer gives us insight on “hunting” them, as well as tips for using them in the kitchen.
Cooking with fresh wild mushrooms is an experience you really must try at least once. The difference in taste between cultivated mushrooms and the wild ones is huge. For most of us, cooking with wild mushrooms is a luxury—like tasting truffles—but for the lucky few, funghi di bosco or funghi selvatici are an abundant and common ingredient in daily cuisine. In Italy, gathering wild mushrooms—andar a funghi—is common practice due to the favorable geographic conditions; the Alps and Apennine mountains are flourishing grounds for the most popular mushrooms. A love of the outdoors and a passion for the “hunt” are essential aspects of mushroom gathering, which also requires an intimate familiarity with the territory and expert knowledge about the mushrooms themselves—recognizing the most sought after varieties and discerning the poisonous types. The fact that the adventure contains this slight whiff of danger is part of the allure, spawning a kind of cult of wild mushroom enthusiasts with a whole social and gastronomical culture of its own.
Of course, whether you come back from a mushroom hunt laden with treasures or empty-handed, it is part of the thrill of the adventure. The peak season for mushroom gathering in most areas of Italy is from April to early November, but this varies from region to region. For instance, in southern Italy—in the rich forests of Abruzzo and Molise, Basilicata, and Calabria as well as parts of Sicily—wild mushrooms can still be gathered until late in December, and ever after that.
Weather conditions are the key factor in producing a good mushroom season, which requires a perfect combination of rain, sun, warmth and humidity. Some years are remembered for generations afterward for their abundance of mushrooms; other years yield practically nothing, mostly for lack of rain. An early frost can abruptly interrupt an otherwise promising season. Another determining factor in whether or not your hunt will be fruitful is the particular area in which you are searching. Some species of mushrooms—such as porcini or boletus, pioppini (delicious mushrooms that grow on old poplars), russulas, morels, and chanterelles—are common in some regions and unknown in others. Chestnut, pine, oak and beech forests are the ideal habitats for many of these funghi. The local inhabitants always know which mushrooms to pick up and which to leave—meaning which ones are inedible or even worse, poisonous.
In Italy, it’s now necessary to buy a permit to gather mushrooms, and there are strict limits to the amount you are allowed. If you have any doubts about the mushrooms you’ve gathered, in most of the towns or villages near wooded areas, the local doctors and pharmacists will examine them free of charge. Needless to say, it is essential that you are 100% sure that whatever you put on your plate is edible. The ingestion of a mere ounce of some varieties of mushrooms can be deadly; other varieties are toxic enough to make you ill—but fortunately the large majority of wild mushrooms are not only edible, but exquisite (and even good for you!)
Most of the edible species of wild mushrooms can be sautéed, or braised, in the classic Italian way known as funghi trifolati, using olive oil, garlic, parsley and white wine. Mushrooms prepared in this way can be the base for many other recipes (see below). Apart from enjoying them as a contorno (side dish) with meat, one of the oldest and most typical ways to serve funghi trifolati is with polenta and formaggio di malga, a fresh, light, and very tasty cow cheese produced in the same areas where the mushrooms are found. (Note: Some cooks don’t use wine, and others use shallots instead of garlic, or a combination of both. Tomatoes, when desired, should be used only sparingly as their taste tends to be overwhelming.)
Wild mushrooms are used in an infinite variety of dishes, starting with antipasti, where they are sometimes served raw in salads, or preserved in olive oil and white vinegar as an accompaniment to salumi. But often, wild mushrooms are the main or only ingredient in pasta and filled-pasta dishes, such as tagliatelle or fettuccine ai funghi. Another great example is pasticcio di funghi, which is made with meat- or ricotta-filled pasta (tortelloni or agnolotti) and baked with besciamella sauce, funghi trifolati, grana and sometimes fontina cheese. For a special treat, you can prepare wild mushroom lasagna, with or without meat. Funghi selvatici are also great in filled crespelle (crepes) or focacce, and are even occasionally used as toppings on pizza. They are ideal in risotto—often using porcini, though many other varieties, fresh or dried, are great for this dish, especially morels and chanterelles. Wonderful cream soups, veloutés, are also prepared with wild mushrooms. Many varieties of funghi selvatici can be fried and some just grilled. They are also often used in sauces or as an accompaniment to many meat preparations—from scaloppine to brasati and spezzatini, braised and stewed meat. Some chefs combine the more delicate wild mushrooms with fish.
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